A guest post from Dan Visel of With Hidden Noise:
No one reads Charles Montagu Doughty. I first came across the man in Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination, still one of the best pointers to underappreciated writers and artists around. In “The Symbol of the Archaic,” he writes:
… the great unknown of English letters, Charles Montagu Doughty, who suspected all writers after Chaucer of whoring after strange dictionaries, who went into the Arabian desert (or “Garden of God”)—the most archaic act of modern literature—to save, as he said, the English language.
That salvation is still one of the best of books, the Travels in Arabia Deserta, though we have neglected his masterpiece, The Dawn in Britain, with its archaic theme and its archaic English. (p. 23)
Davenport’s précis is surprisingly accurate. Doughty’s best-known work is a 600,000 word account of his largely solitary travels in the Arabian peninsula starting in 1872. Ostensibly taken with an interest in archaeology, Doughty discovered very little. Dead set in the correctness of his Christianity and the falseness of Islam, he refused both to proselytize and to pretend to be Muslim. His prose reads like nothing else in English:
I wondered with a secret horror at the fiend-like malice of these fanatical Beduins, with whom no keeping touch nor truth of honourable life, no performance of good offices, might win the least favour from the dreary, inhuman, and for our sins, inveterate dotage of their blood-guilty religion. But I had eaten of their cheer, and might sleep among wolves. The fortune of the morrow was dark as death, all ways were shut before me. There came in a W. Aly sheykh and principal of that tribe’s exiles, he was a hereditary arbiter or lawyer among them, in the custom of the desert: the arbiter sitting by and fixing upon me his implacable eyes, asked the sheykhs of the Moahîb in an under-voice ‘Why brought they the Nasrâny?’ They said, ‘Khalîl was come of himself.’ (p. 551)
This did not go over immensely well with the reading public in 1884, but T. E. Lawrence was a fan of the book and brought about its republication in 1921. Andrew Taylor’s biography God’s Fugitive (1999) traces the life of this supremely prickly man who called himself Khalîl, focusing largely on Doughty’s trip to Arabia. Dover put out a two-volume edition of Travels in Arabia Deserta in 1980 which reproduces his illustrations nicely; a version abridged by Edward Garnett (sometimes called Wanderings in Arabia) can also be found.
Doughty’s later books are no less strange, though much harder to find, as none of them seem to have been reprinted. The Dawn in Britain (1906) is a six-volume epic poem presenting a new mythology of the founding of Britain. I have a copy of The Cliffs (1909), a chamber drama about the imminent danger of a German attack on Britain – Arabia made Doughty a patriot. The dramatis personae includes, among others:
SIRION, divine shining One from heaven; one of the Mighty Powers of the Universe.
YAMÎN and SHEMÔL; two strong heavenly Spirits, with Sirion.
TRUTH, (sunborn eternally on the Earth;) and a company of LIGHT ELVES with him.
JOHN HOBBE, Crimean veteran, now a shepherd on the Cliff.
TWO FOREIGN AERONAUTS, with their MACHINIST; that are Spies.
A LITTLE DEFORMED MAIDEN, (a ladys daughter, living abroad.)
MAKEPEACE, John Hobbes wife, (who does not speak.)
SOULS OF BRITAINS SLEEPERS.
GHOSTS OF ENGLANDS HERO-DEAD.
FOREIGN GHOSTS; (BUONAPARTE and THE MAID OF ORLEANS.)
One can’t imagine that this was ever performed. The text, in blank verse, sends one scrambling for the Oxford English Dictionary from Hobbe’s first speech:
Now in my once young veins, begins to creep
Dull age, rheums too. I moun, these lambing nights,
Lie out, in wind and wet, amongst the ewes,
In fold; that now I’ve pitched gin the heath-croft.
I feed them there of rapes, to give them strength.
I may not rest, as I wor wont of sleep;
So a wimble bores my brain, of busy thought:
Wherefore, what though ’t be chill for an old wight,
I’ve left them ruckling mother sheep; to pace
Awhile here to and forth, longs the sea-cliff. (p. 3)
And so it goes for another 250 pages. With Doughty, there’s always the threat of crackpottery. But his English is like that of no one else, and he should not be forgotten.
[This is a guest post from Dan Visel of With Hidden Noise]